If my count is accurate, I was one of just three men (aside from the tech guy) who attended the Maternal Mental Health Conference on Oct. 2, at the Morrelly Conference Center in Bethpage. Yet the message of this conference was as germane for men—fathers, brothers, grandfathers and coworkers—as it was for mothers.
The conference was led by a terrific panel of health professionals, health educators and advocates. In the comments to follow, I will not cite any one in particular but I credit all five—Pauline Walfisch, Dr. Ariela Frieder, Vanessa McMullan, Sonia Murdoch and Phyllis Kaufman—who are all champions for pregnant and parenting moms.
We must begin with understanding the false ideal imposed upon many new moms. The ideal is that when a woman becomes pregnant, delivers a child and becomes a mother who cares for that child, everything is supposed to perfect.
Undoubtedly, some moms are able to acknowledge that being a mother is messy. They can adjust their sights, recognize that the ideal of perfection is a fantasy and adjust to the new reality of their lives. Naturally, it helps enormously to have the consistent support and understanding of their partner, family members and friends.
For some moms, though, messiness is harder to tolerate, especially when they experience what used to be known exclusively as postpartum depression and is now known as perinatal mood or anxiety disorders (PMADs for short). The latter term broadens the focus by recognizing that depression can occur during pregnancy as well as after giving birth, and that anxiety may also be a part of the picture. In other words, postpartum depression, the term most well-known by the lay public, is just one type of PMAD.
It is important here to pause and explain the difference between baby blues and clinical depression. The term baby blues represents the normal and characteristically mild ups and downs that new moms might experience for a few weeks after giving birth. Postpartum depression, on the other hand, can be the result of a confluence of stressors including the shifting of reproductive hormones following the delivery, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, isolation, inadequate partner support, poverty and health issues of mom or baby, for example.
When you couple all this with the myth of perfect maternal bliss, the result is that many moms living with PMADs suffer in silence. Anything other than 100 percent perfection evokes feelings of stigma and shame.
Some mothers who are clinically depressed live with the belief that they should just “suck it up.” Others are advised to “pray it away.” Moms are very hard on themselves; they can begin to feel hopeless and harbor the feeling that things will never get better.
The good news is that there is help. The better news is that you can help. As one of the panelists advised, just ask the question. In other words, ask how mom is doing. The focus is most often on how the baby is doing, totally disregarding the mom, which just reinforces the idea that moms should be happy, holding their own and thrilled to be a new mother.
Whether you are a partner, parent, friend or colleague—female or male—asking the question is the first step toward eliminating stigma and shame. It can make all the difference in the world for a new mom who is suffering in silence. Ask the question.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center. To find out more, including information about the Guidance Center’s Diane Goldberg Maternal Depression Program, call 516-626-1971 or visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.